We were a bit concerned that our departure day, Friday 30 June, coincided with the Cincinnati stop of Taylor Swift’s 2023 Eras Tour, anticipating long traffic delays as we made our way past the riverfront toward the airport. Major events had been scheduled that evening at all three stadiums in the vicinity—pro baseball and soccer games in addition to the Swift concert—so we arranged for our friend Nan (another frequent traveling companion) to pick us up much earlier than we would have set out under normal circumstances. We were relieved to discover that traffic heading south toward the river was not nearly as bad as anticipated, so we arrived at CVG with plenty of time to spare. Plenty of time, indeed, because once at the airport we learned that the first leg of our flight—Cincinnati to Atlanta—would be delayed for an hour and a half due to thunderstorms across the southeastern U.S.
“We’d better get something to eat here in Cincinnati, because now we won’t have time to get dinner in Atlanta before boarding the flight to Amsterdam,” Nancy suggested.
“Good idea,” said Michael. “I could do with a smoothie.”
“Good luck with that,” Nancy responded. “I don’t think there’s any place in CVG that sells smoothies.”
Since most short-hop commuter airline services from Cincinnati were discontinued about twenty years ago and Delta Airlines demoted CVG from a major hub to a backwater, we’ve watched more and more airport eateries and boutiques pull down their security shutters for good. So Nancy was right; even after a complete survey of Concourse B, we were unable to find a single source for a smoothie. The closest approximation available: Starbucks’ fruit-flavored lemonade “Refreshers,” which turned out to be virtually flavorless and completely disappointing. Neither could we find any type of salad to go; if you wanted a salad, you had to get a table either at Outback or Hop & Cask. We feel sorry for anyone unlucky enough to be grounded at CVG for more than two hours.
Fortunately, our plane eventually took off, and because most other flights had been delayed due to the weather, we had just enough time to share a salad before boarding our 8:30 p.m. connecting flight to Amsterdam. No empty seats offering room to stretch out on that plane, but we didn’t feel cramped because Michael had managed to reserve places in a bulkhead row. The downside to sitting in the bulkhead: every time someone opened the door to the toilet during the night, it was like having headlights flashed in our bedroom window. Nancy spent the first few hours of the nine-hour flight reading East Wind by Rachel Rueckert (recommended) and then dozed on and off after the meal service; Michael watched A Man Called Otto (also recommended) and then feigned sleep until the cabin lights came on so breakfast (a rubbery egg-and-cheese McMuffin) could be served.
Getting through customs at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport was quick and painless. The same was not true of driving to Schiphol to pick us up for Marc and Emery, due to the closure of a major Amsterdam artery on their normal route. Michael and Nancy didn’t mind waiting as instructed “near the colored balls” (a collection of eighty-five giant, rainbow-hued spheres by artist Dale Chihuly) and were excited to see Emery when she finally came to meet us.
Emery and Marc live in the town of Almere on the eastern side of greater Amsterdam. As we drove toward their home, Marc explained that Almere was constructed on land reclaimed from the sea during the last half of the twentieth century, so nothing in town—unlike in Amsterdam proper—is more than fifty years old. As a planned community, Almere is laid out in an orderly way, although not with the type of grid pattern one might expect; the streets and canals bend and curve in pleasing ways. Emery and Marc’s spacious, three-floor duplex is located in the Striphelden ward, in which all streets are named for comic strip heroes. Apparently, the Dutch do not find it laughable to live on Popeyestraat or Donald Ducklaan.
Emery fixed us some chicken sandwiches for lunch, after which we took a brief nap to recharge before setting out for the afternoon. Marc had planned a boat tour of Giethoorn, a charming village known as the “Venice of Amsterdam,” where a car will take you only as far as the perimeter. Periods of rain during the morning and the continued passage of dark clouds across the sun prompted us to ask whether we should take raincoats, but Marc assured us that the showers had ended and we could expect a fine afternoon for a boat ride through the canals of Giethoorn. He had arranged to rent a six-passenger skiff, which he planned to pilot himself with assistance from his fourteen-year-old son, Mattias.
The favorable weather forecast notwithstanding, rain had begun falling again during the one-hour drive from Almere to Giethoorn, and was falling steadily by the time we embarked upon our boat journey. Marc, Michael, and Emery had brought rain jackets, but Nancy and Mattias had only the light plastic ponchos that happened to have been stashed in the car for such an occasion. No matter what we were wearing, it was hard to stay dry in the open boat, but at least it wasn’t too cold. We began by crossing Bovenwijde, a shallow lake about 2 kilometers long that eventually connected with Giethoorn’s canal system, and then slowly drifted through the waterways of the picturesque village.
“Let’s stop and get a drink,” Marc suggested as he steered toward a mooring. Mattias helped him tie up the boat, then we clambered up the grassy slope to a nearby café. The host declined to seat us inside because we didn’t have a reservation, but we found a vacant table under an awning. Under the circumstances, hot chocolate sounded better than cold soda, so we all ordered a cup. This was no ordinary hot chocolate, however; each order included a little cup of chocolate chips—a mixture of white and dark—that we stirred into mugs of steaming, frothy milk topped with a spritz of whipped cream. In addition, Marc wanted to make sure we tried the Dutch apple pie (with chunky apples and a crust more bready than flaky), and to introduce us to bitterballen, the Dutch version of French croquettes or Italian arancini. These freshly fried little snack balls were stuffed with a bit of meat ragout and were quite tasty. By the time we returned to our skiff, the rain had stopped and our clothes had dried out. The canals had soon taken us full-circle back to the boat rental so we didn’t have to cross the lake again.
Having eaten what seemed like a full meal late in the afternoon, we weren’t in a hurry for dinner, but Marc had planned to make us stamppot, a traditional Dutch dish of mashed potatoes and leeks with bacon. He needed more leeks, so on the way back from Giethoorn, we stopped at a grocery store. Michael and Nancy enjoyed exploring the aisles while Emery and Marc picked up what they needed for the next few days. Marc described Albert Heijn as a “high end” establishment, similar to Whole Foods in the U.S., but in our estimation the prices—especially for produce—did not seem to require a “whole paycheck.”
The stamppot and the sausage that accompanied it were delicious, but even better was the dinner conversation. Emery and Marc both enjoy substantive discussion, and Mattias is an unusually amiable teenager. We could have continued talking long into the night had jet lag not made our eyelids start to droop by 9:30. And we might have had a good, uninterrupted night’s sleep had Michael not received a phone call at 2:45 a.m. from Montgomery Ward’s music leader, asking if he could fill in as the organist for the Sunday afternoon meeting. (Umm, sorry.)
Nancy woke naturally at 6:15, so she rose to do her exercises and take a shower before rousing Michael from a sound sleep at 7:45. Being the first Sunday of the month and therefore a day of fasting for Latter-day Saints, we skipped breakfast and left for church at 9:15. Mattias needed to be there early to set up the sacrament table, but we appreciated the chance to visit with members of the Almere Ward before the meeting began and get headsets that would allow us to listen to the service in English. Emery introduced us to Marion, who would be providing the translation that day. Most Netherlanders speak excellent English; it’s a required subject at school and students take their language studies seriously because international trade is the foundation of the Dutch economy. Marion confessed that she wasn’t the best translator in the Almere Ward, but we thought she did an excellent job helping us understand the extemporaneous testimonies of Christ shared by several ward members. The adult Sunday School lesson was more challenging because no official translation was provided, but we could follow along without too much trouble because it was based on the final chapters of the Gospel of John in the New Testament, focusing on Christ’s pointed interchange with Peter: “Simon, do you love me? Then feed my sheep.” Marc helped us out when we couldn’t understand the questions and comments, while also actively making queries and comments of his own. After church, while we waited for Mattias to clean and put away the sacrament trays, we toured the flower and vegetable garden maintained on the grounds by members of the ward.
Back at home, Emery fixed chicken sandwiches; Marc added some good pickles to the lunch menu, and then brought out a couple of different chocolate bars that he broke up and distributed for everyone to sample. Shortly thereafter, Mattias took off on his bike to spend the afternoon with a friend, and the rest of us set out for Zaanse Schans, a village on the other side of Amsterdam that comprises several vintage windmills and other wooden buildings relocated from other parts of the country to provide visitors with a sense of daily life in the past. Unfortunately, we ran into the same type of traffic jam that had delayed Emery and Marc on the previous day’s trip to the airport, so when we realized that we were running out of time to do Zaanse Schans justice before it closed at 5 p.m., we decided to turn around and visit Muiderslot instead.
This classic medieval castle was built in the fourteenth century to enforce the collection of tolls from trading ships making their way up the Vecht River from the Zuiderzee. (The Zuiderzee, a shallow extension of the North Sea, doesn’t exist as such anymore because much of it was drained in the twentieth century to create more arable land—and the community of Almere.) To our dismay, Muiderslot closed just minutes after we arrived, so we could not go inside, but we were able to take a short walk that offered a nice view of the historic castle. Chagrined, Marc declared the trip “a complete waste of time,” but we assured him that the afternoon had not been wasted because we thoroughly enjoyed just having time to talk. Conversation in the car involved a stimulating discussion of prophets, prophecy, and the perils of “prophet worship” (Marc’s term for the tendency of some Latter-day Saints to regard the president of the Church as a demigod).
The other part of the afternoon excursion that definitely was not a waste was a visit to Blaricum, the town adjacent to Almere where Emery and Marc had been married. “I tried to schedule the town hall in Almere for the wedding,” Emery explained, “but everything was disrupted because of COVID and no one ever responded to the messages I left. The wedding date was approaching and we still didn’t have a venue, so I called Blaricum. Their town clerk was really nice and helped us get everything set up,” she continued. “We’re actually very glad that we could hold the wedding in the Blaricum town hall because the room they let us use is larger and much nicer than the one we would have had to use in Almere.” Although the town hall was closed when we visited, we could look through the windows to see where the marriage had taken place. As Emery and Marc recounted the events of that special day, we learned that their wedding pictures had been taken at Muiderslot. The castle had been closed to the public in April 2021 due to COVID, but they had been able to arrange for a private photo shoot on the grounds. “It was great!” Emery said. “We had the whole place to ourselves!”
Sunday dinner (chicken meatballs, couscous salad, and steamed broccoli) was quickly prepared, consumed, and cleaned up so that we could participate in a virtual religious discussion with several of Marc’s friends from across the Netherlands and beyond. The group has been meeting via Zoom on the first Sunday of every month for some time.
That night’s discussion was stimulated by the question: “Does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a theology?” After an hour or more of debate, we concluded that the answer is No (“although we Latter-day Saints usually try to act as if we do,” commented one participant). We decided that our cherished belief in living prophets and continuous revelation causes just enough flux in our doctrines to preclude anything immutable.
Before we went to bed, Marc gathered us around a vintage map of central Amsterdam hanging in their dining room to orient us for tomorrow’s excursion into the city proper.